GLENDALE, Ariz. — What a difference a year has made for Radim Vrbata.
Last season, the Czech forward signed a two-year $10 million deal with Vancouver, secured by the promise of playing alongside stars Daniel and Henrik Sedin. He played with the twins for the first half of last season, he scored 31 goals, the second highest total of his career, and he posted a career-high 63 points, earning his first NHL All-Star appearance.
Despite that success, Vrbata knew a drastically different season was coming when he spoke about the direction of the team over the summer. He watched the Canucks trade the center with whom he played the second half of last season, Nick Bonino, to Pittsburgh along with defenseman Adam Clendening and a 2016 second-round pick for center Brandon Sutter and a 2016 third-round pick. He heard the Canucks talk about injecting youth into their lineup.
With the youth-movement push this season, Vrbata hasn’t played many games with the Sedins, other than on the power play where Vancouver has had just 164 opportunities (19th in the NHL). He has bounced around lines, preventing him from establishing chemistry with anyone. He was even demoted to the fourth line for Tuesday’s game in Denver before joining Bo Horvat and Sven Baertschi for Wednesday’s game against the Coyotes in the wake of an injury to Brandon Sutter.
Vrbata has just 11 goals and 22 points in 52 games and his name has become the subject of rampant trade rumors as the NHL’s Feb. 29 trade deadline approaches.
“You’re in Canada so you hear a lot,” he said. “Even going into the season after having an All-Star season last year, you knew what the team was doing and what the situation was with the rebuild. With the trade deadline coming up, it’s heating up more and more.”
Vrbata hates uncertainty. When he became a free agent in the summer of 2014, he bent over backward to try and remain with the Coyotes where he had played his previous five seasons, and six of the past seven. He even offered to stay with essentially no pay raise, but the Coyotes were forcing their own youth movement and gave Vrbata a lowball offer of $10 million over four years, so he followed the advice of Rich Evans, his Vancouver based agent, and signed with the Canucks.
Adding to Vrbata’s unease this season is the fact his wife, Petra, is pregnant with the couple’s third child, due in late May or early June. If he is traded at the deadline, the family will stay behind in Vancouver until the summer when he knows where he will be playing next.
“It’s really tough on the family, but you’re older and you now how the league works so you can deal with it a little better,” he said.
Vrbata has a modified no-trade clause in his contract, allowing him to list eight teams to which he would approve a trade. The Coyotes are one of those teams but Vrbata isn’t sure many of the eight would actually seek his services.
The perplexing thing about Vrbata’s situation in Vancouver is that he was wooed by the idea of playing with the Sedins. He had success doing that last season, but Vancouver wanted more scoring balance so they put him with Bonino.
“I understood why we wanted to spread it out but I still rode that confidence that you can play with anybody,” he said.
This season is a different story. Vancouver is 25th in the NHL with 129 goals yet coach Willie Desjardins hasn’t allowed Vrbata to play alongside the Sedins much to get him going.
“He’s trying really hard, he just isn’t getting any breaks,” Desjardins said.
A common belief in Vancouver is that the Sedins need a wing who will get them the puck. That begs a simple question: Why acquire Vrbata in the first place to play with the twins? He’s never been a corner battler. He is a goal-scorer with a terrific release who is most effective in space.
He needs a playmaker to get him the puck, like Ray Whitney did in the 2011-12 season when Vrbata scored a career-high 35 goals.
“I don’t ask to play with the Sedins,” Vrbata said. “However they put the lines, that’s where I play, but I play a certain way and for me to be effective you need players who are on the same page or complement you.”
Vrbata still has the fourth-highest shot rate in the league, so he’s still managing to generate chances, but the shots aren’t coming from the right areas or with the right timing because he’s playing with players who don’t complement him. He is also taking a surprising amount of defensive zone face-offs alongside a center like Jared McCann who wins just 34.5 percent of his draws.
Vrbata always knew he’d have to uproot his family after this season because of the deal he signed, but it may happen a lot sooner than he expected due to the Canucks’ change in philosophy. Vrbata, 34, still has concerns that the league’s modest salary cap increases could squeeze him out this summer.
“You have more young guys on most of the teams,” he said. “You could see what was happening to older players last year. There were some good NHL players who didn’t even sign.”
That said, it’s hard to envision a player one season removed from 31 goals not getting some bites — a guy whom Coyotes coach Dave Tippett always described as an honest player and a good pro.
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